Peter Tieryas Liu's novel, Bald New World builds a dystopian future that is terrifying, clever with a sometimes beautiful exterior that is gritty in its truths. It is captivating in its visuals and storytelling of a world in chaos after everyone loses their hair. Espionage, intrigue, murder and mystery are shrouded under dazzling city lights, masked by a steady rain and engulfed by stifling smog. The harsh realities of its world lay the groundwork for an equally engaging narrative centered around the journey and personal struggle of its main character, Nick Guan.
I had a chance to speak with author Peter Tieryas Liu to discuss advertisements, crickets, video games, vanity, Asian culture and a strange, hairless future.
Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for Bald New World?
I'd always wanted to tell a story about family, but I knew the story would be different in the sense that I didn't have a real family growing up. So at first, it revolved around the idea of a cult that gathers the weak and vulnerable during the aftermath of the "Baldification." But the story kept on evolving to the point where I felt the cult would be extraneous and I wanted to focus more on the idea of the Baldification, the ways it would change humanity. At the same time, I wanted to avoid the tropes of most dystopias, at least in the sense that if you could consider the world of Bald New World dystopic, you could call our own contemporary society a dystopia (which, if you took someone from fifty years ago and placed them here, they might think that). When the Baldification first happens, there's mass panic, riots, etc. And then the next day comes around and people are still here and they're like, what do we do now? They have no choice but to move on. What would that world be like twenty-five years after the fact? Would the lack of hair bother people? Would it really change anything? Those questions intrigued me and I spent a lot of time fleshing out the world, pages and pages of thoughts and musings, much of which did not actually make it into the final book.
I also learned more about hair and wigs during those weeks of research than I ever thought I would in my life. It all tied back in with theme of family and cycles, particularly after I connected it with with Larry as the heir to the biggest wig factory in the world and his best friend, Nick, running wild on their adventures.
The future in Bald New World is a grim, tongue-in-cheek statement on a lot of ideals many value while picking apart a lot of the current trends in popular culture, and environmental matters. It is quite the world you've imagined and quite a character study of human nature. In a lot of ways, it's a sarcastic, biting critique and certainly a unique vision of an oncoming apocalypse. Which sci-fi influences and works would you say inspired the narrative?
There's so many, I don't even know where to begin. The more obvious ones I cite directly in Bald New World are Cao Xueqin's Dream of Red Mansions, Steinbeck's East of Eden, and Dostoyevski's Brothers Karamazov, all of which have amazing scenes of magical realism and humanism. Obviously, I loved Orwell's 1984, anything by Harlan Ellison. Cordwainer Smith is a huge favorite, as are Joe Haldeman, Yukito Kishiro, Alan Moore, and Pu Songling. I enjoyed Brave New World by Huxley, though my title was as much a nod to the original book as it was to Shakespeare's Tempest where the original quote came from. The big book, the Bible, and especially Ecclesiastes with its philosophical musings on vanity and wisdom is also a huge influence. If you consider the Bible non-historical, technically speaking, it would be the grandest and most original work of science fiction ever. As for if you consider it historical, it doesn't take away from the gripping tales and the sense of tragedy and hope imbuing the characters, from the Davidic dynasty to the tribulations of Job who's caught up in a cosmic trial questioning the existence of evil if a God really exists. Movie-wise, there's Brazil, Blade Runner, the original Planet of the Apes, Dune, Soylent Green, and many more, including Robocop's satirical view of the future, which back then, seemed over the top, and now, seems tame in comparison. On a more contemporary front, Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby and Jason Jordan's The Dying Horse were both phenomenal and extremely creative. Richard Thomas's writing makes me quiver, shake, and want to tear my innards out, it's so intense and visceral.
I don't like using the word apocalypse for BNW because it implies an end to civilization, which would just be nature and animals living on fine without us. I'm more concerned with the idea that despite the hair loss, people adapt, and it's the how that I'm fascinated by. Baldification is not the end of the world. Far from it. But, as I mentioned above, what does that mean for people in their everyday life?
On a separate track, I think the commodification of everything takes away the humanity of the characters, putting a price tag on their existence. Their dehumanization makes the story seem more dystopic and apocalyptic. The cultural values we hold dear are being exploited and attacked in BNW. But the new form of society that arises from it doesn't entail an end to our humanity. Though often, as Nick finds out, suffering is the only way to regain it.
Image credit: Min Fu
How much did your location and cultural background help shape this story?
Beijing and Los Angeles play a huge role in the story. I love Beijing and Los Angeles, two of my favorite cities in the world. It's no exaggeration to say China changed my life. The cultural exposure to things I couldn't even begin to imagine, the vibrancy and the energy that pulsated through the social layers, was an epiphany. I mean, almost everything I'd read about China before I went was either wrong or grossly exaggerated stereotypes, which, I hate to say, verge on dismissive ignorance. It's easy to ridicule something you don't understand. What I wanted to emphasize was that despite cultural differences and barriers, interesting characters and stories transcend race.
One question I've surprisingly been asked a lot has been, why did I choose to make the characters of Asian descent. Which honestly, has been surprising. I'm of Asian descent so naturally, I made my characters of Asian descent, and there was no deeper agenda, no desire to make a cultural statement. Race is just a starting point. "Asian" descent doesn't define or limit the characters. Even in China alone, there's a billion people, each city very different from each other. And for me, I consider myself American. Yes, Asian-American, but still, an American first and foremost.
I love the plurality of our culture, how we embrace all the different cultures, even if we all sometimes fall short of the ideal (also in China, they called me a Westerner and made no distinction for me as an "Asian-American"). There has never been a nation or culture like that in the history of time- at least not to the extent that we have. The clash, the bridges, and ways they complement one another, is always part of the undercurrent and part of the challenge for me in the construction of the narrative.
One thing that really struck me was how integrated and abundant advertisements are implemented throughout the narrative to help sell this new world! It's brilliant and reminded me a little bit of Cowboy Bebop, in a way. What prompted this decision? Is this the nightmare future you envision?
The sad and disturbing part isn't that this is a nightmare future. Look around you- ads are everywhere, so much to the point where they've become part of our subconscious landscape. It's only more noticeable in BNW because I specifically bring attention to it. But if you lived there and then, you'd barely even notice it, just the same way you blot out websites, sign on the sides of buses, television commercials, etc. The deluge of mediums vying for your attention means the marketing companies will do more and more to try to shock and grab your attention. That's why the most popular shows of that future BNW world revolve around sex and religion. If I remember my Foucault correctly, much of religion revolves around the regulation of sexuality. So in that sense, entertainment becomes the new religion, an outlet for expression, and a release for the people who work shit jobs and make shit money just to survive. At the same time, it is pretty cool visually traveling through the Beijing Subways and seeing some of the sleekest ads around, whether in the subway tunnels or even just those huge, Blade Runner-esque big-screens playing around the clock. Those were elements I wanted to incorporate and have fun with.
There's this stressful yet wildly imaginative portion of the novel that highlights human connectivity to crickets for sport. Without giving too much away, it channels some brutally intense form of neurological interfacing. How did this idea come about?
I've always been fascinated by bugs. If you think about it, their lives are pretty tragic. The whole of their existence is to survive long enough to propagate and die. They have no rest, are constantly scurrying for food, and many will die a violent death, whether stomped on by humans, poisoned to death, or tortured by children, who to them, will seem like goliaths of monstrosities, a force of nature similar to a hurricane without any sense of purpose or meaning.
Cricket fighting became an allegory for the crisis Nick is suffering. I didn't know much about cricket fighting until I read about it in some Chinese books. The more research I did, the more fascinated I became. For some reason, I thought of Disney's Jiminy Cricket (hence cute crickets), but the ones they used for combat are huge black beauties that are very fierce. The more I read about the life of a cricket, the more I realized how tough they had it. Their wing songs are a desperate attempt at finding a mate so their line can carry on, not some attempt at making a musical to lyricize night life. At the same time, I wanted to take the connection deeper with the characters and hence the neurological interfacing. One reviewer recently called it Pacific Rim with crickets, a comparison I found both hilarious and oddly apt.
Early on, the main characters go to a sort of video game themed club. Video games have been considered a fairly young medium as we know it now but their presence in Bald New World reflects a sort of tribute, and almost seems acceptable in mainstream culture but more a pastime for the elite in society. What's your relationship to video games, your take on culture and your choices to portray them in such a way?
Tell us a little about the upcoming video game?
That whole sequence was a big nod to one of my favorite games, Snatcher, by Hideo Kojima. There is actually is a whole bar filled with old Konami characters that I absolutely loved. I started off my professional career at LucasArts, as both a game tester and technical writer for game manuals, before moving into the art department. Games like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and Dragon Quest were huge for me growing up, and the sense of grandness and character investment that each provoked is something I strive for in every story I tell. I learned a lot, both at LucasArts and EA, and some of the people I've met at those companies are my closest friends now.
I am prototyping a game version of Bald New World. Initially, I started in GameMaker and then Unity, but I wanted something even more streamlined. Another designer, Kyle Muntz, whose game, Pale City, rocks, suggested RPGMaker. It's very easy and intuitive to use so I've been plotting out the prototype in RPGMaker and it's been an absolute blast. It's a very different approach to narrative as you want to create an experience to be played rather than something read, also meaning the player has more freedom on how they go through the story. You want to avoid being too linear, but you also want to craft the plot structure so that you can simulate an arc of sorts. It's still ongoing and I hope to get on it more once Bald New World officially releases. Here's some art that the supremely talented artist, Min Fu, allowed me to use for the game. As everyone is bald, they wear elaborate wigs and hats. I thought Min's art perfectly captured the beauty, vanity, and loneliness many in the future world feel.
Image credit: Min Fu
What was the most thrilling scene to write and how much research did you do when writing about all the amazing food in the characters' travels?
Bald New World was catharsis for me, especially the ending scene. In many ways, the person I was when I began was very different from the person who finished it. I felt so liberated, so free when I was finished. There are some disturbing scenes that I struggled writing. Seriously, some of the moments were really hard to write, and after I'd written them, I became terrified by what people would think about afterwards. I've been humbled at the amazing reviews, particularly with so many pointing out the humanism of the characters.
As for the food, that's one thing you'll immediately notice in China. It's soooo good. And completely unlike what passes for Chinese food here in the States. The Chinese like to point out they've had 5,000 years of history to refine their food. There is so much variety, so much flavor, it will blow your mind. And it's not just the Chinese food either. The best burger I've ever tasted was in Beijing. Same for the best French lobster, lol. Also, dim sum is more Cantonese/HK style and not reflective of mainland food. Even in Hong Kong though, the "dim sum" tasted so much better than the "dim sum" here. I hate to sound like a food snob, ha ha, but I still dream about the food and it's an important element in all my writing.
Any interesting projects coming in the future that we should be on the lookout for?
Thanks for asking! I have two projects. The first is a graphic novel with an old LucasArts friend, James Chiang, who is just one of the most amazing artists I know. The graphic novel is being represented by Judy Hansen who is just awesome and represents some of our favorite artist/writers like Bryan Lee O'Malley (Scott Pilgrim), Raina Telgemier, Hope Larson, and Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese). It's a murder mystery set in Shanghai and revolves around the discovery of a corpse seeping purple blood. The second is a literary website called Entropy which covers reviews and essays of everything from strange films doused in philosophical conundrums to the existential meanderings of literature. I'm heading that up with another very talented writer, Janice Lee, and our collaboration has just been a joy. It's also been an amazing experience working with a very talented team of co-editors and writers including Byron Campbell, Leif Haven, Megan Milks, Maxi Kim, and so many others that I can't even begin to name here. Aside from that, I've been coordinating the international rights for Bald New World and am busily at work at my next book which I hope to dive into more in the second half of the year.
- Bald New World will be released on May 31st, 2014 and was recently named one of the most anticipated novels in 2014 from (mostly) small presses on Buzzfeed; as well as one of the best summer books as per Publisher's Weekly.